As the seasons change and fall becomes winter, the dropping temperatures can be dangerous to your health. When the temperature falls below normal staying safe and warm can be challenging, and exposure to cold temperatures can have serious, even life-threatening effects on your health. The elderly and babies are at the most risk of illness from extreme cold, but anyone can be affected.
The most common cold-related health problems are hypothermia and frostbite. To keep yourself and your family safe, you should know how to prevent cold-related health problems and what to do if a cold weather health emergency arises.
Hypothermia sets in when more heat is lost than your body can regenerate. It generally occurs in very cold temperatures, but it can happen in cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or submersion in cold water. People suffering from hypothermia will experience a gradual loss of mental and physical abilities. Severe hypothermia can lead to death.
Some warning signs of hypothermia include:
- Confusion, Fumbling Hands
- Shivering, Exhaustion
- Memory Loss, Slurred Speech
- Very Low Energy For Infants
- Bright Red, Cold Skin For Infants
If you see any of these signs, take the person's temperature. If it is below 95°, get medical attention immediately. Until medical help arrives you can:
- Move The Person Out Of The Cold
Getting the hypothermia victim out of the cold is crucial because it will prevent additional heat loss from their body. If you cannot move the person out of the cold, try to shield them from the cold and wind as much as possible.
- Insulate The Person's Body From The Ground
Get the person off the ground by laying them, face up, on a blanket or other warm surface.
- Remove Wet Clothing
If the person is wearing wet clothing, remove it and replace it with dry clothes.
- Share Body Heat
To warm the person suffering from hypothermia remove their clothes and yours and lie next to them, making skin-to-skin contact. Then cover both of your bodies with a blanket.
- Give The Victim Warm Beverages
If the hypothermia victim is alert and able to swallow, have them drink a warm, non-alcoholic beverage to help warm their body.
If someone is suffering from hypothermia you should never:
- Apply Direct Heat
Don't use hot water, a heating pad or heat lamp to warm the hypothermia victim. Instead, apply warm compresses to the neck, chest wall and groin, but do not try to warm the person's arms and legs. Heat applied to the arms and legs forces cold blood back toward the heart, lungs and brain causing the core body temperature to drop, which can lead to death.
- Do Not Massage Or Rub The Person
You should keep the person with hypothermia very still because they are at risk of cardiac arrest.
- Don't Give The Victim Alcohol
Alcohol lowers the body's ability to retain heat.
Frostbite is an injury to the body caused by freezing. It causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas, and most often affects your extremities: the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.
Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. Often victims of frostbite are unaware of a problem until someone else points it out; this is because the person's frozen tissues are numb.
Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:
- Pins And Needles Sensation In Extremities
- White Or Grayish-Yellow Skin Area
- Skin That Feels Unusually Firm Or Waxy
If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical attention immediately. While you wait for paramedics you should:
- Move The Victim From The Cold
If there is not a shelter nearby try to shield the victim from the cold and wind as much as possible.
- Perform Rewarming First Aid
Immerse the affected areas in warm - never hot - water, or repeatedly apply warm cloths to affected areas, ears, nose, or cheeks, for 20 to 30 minutes. To aid the warming process keep circulating the water. Severe burning pain, swelling and color changes may occur during warming. The process is done when the skin is soft and sensation returns.
- Apply Dry, Sterile Dressing To The Frostbitten Areas
Put dressings between frostbitten fingers or toes to keep them separated. Wrapping the affected areas can help prevent refreezing of the thawed extremities.
- Remove All Constrictive Jewelry And Clothes
Constrictive jewelry and clothes may block blood flow.
When someone is suffering from frostbite you should never:
- Thaw A Frostbitten Area If It Cannot Be Kept Thawed
Refreezing may make tissue damage even worse.
- Do Not Use Direct Dry Heat
Using a heating pad, hair dryer, radiator or campfire to thaw frostbitten areas can burn tissues that are already damaged.
- Do Not Rub Or Massage The Affected Area
The friction created can cause further tissue damage.
- Don't Smoke Or Drink Alcoholic Beverages While Recovering
Both smoking and alcoholic drinks can interfere with blood circulation.